Adult learning as embarrassment: more adult learning in crime fiction

I’ve polished off another German crime novel, which I bought in the Oxfam shop in Bonn. It features a middle aged male detective, Adalbert Kluftinger, who is rather set in his ways, and lives in the picturesque but socially conservative southern region known as the Allgäu. And as in so many German Krimis, up pops adult education. Twice.

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The Allgäu town of Kempten, image licensed under Creative Commons

On the first occasion, Kluftinger heads to the local university for applied science to interview a witness, who happens to be lecturing at the time. After getting lost on the campus, Kluftinger walks through a door into the lecture hall, where everyone assumes that he is a pensioner who has come along out of interest. Far too embarrassed to explain otherwise, he waits until the lecture is over.

This episode assumes that the reader knows of the German practice of Seniorenstudium, under which for a small fee, older adults may attend courses as ‘Gasthörer‘, or ‘guest listeners’. In Kempten, as in my old haunt of Cologne, the fee is €100 (or up to €300 per semester depending on the number of courses taken), and the university doesn’t separate older adults from others who register (online) as Gasthörer. But in practice, most such associate students are older adults, and the scheme is a popular one.

The second occasion involves a dancing class. Frau Kluftinger, a dance lover, has enrolled herself and her husband for the course, which inevitably involves him in humiliation at the hands of the tutors. I’d like to think that most adult teachers don’t enjoy humiliating their weaker learners, and the novel turns the tutors – an ultra-camp German male and an Italian woman whose grasp of German grammar is weaker than mine – into parodies. it isn’t clear in the novel who the course provider is.

The novel is called Laienspiel, which I understand as roughly equivalent to ‘Amateur Dramatics’, and the plot involves wicked goings on around a community performance of Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. It’s a novel with a lot of humour, and it exploits adult education in order to emphasise the awkwardness and discomfort Kluftinger feels with the unknown, uncertain, and unpredictable. And it’s another example of the way in which adult education serves so often in German krimis as an unremarkable backdrop to dramatic events.

I wonder, though, whether we have underestimated the importance of embarrassment in adult learning. Or rather, in deterring some people from taking a formal course, with the risk that others will judge you for needing to ‘return to school’, or that you will show yourself up in some way by making mistakes in front of people who seem more confident and competent than you. Perhaps this is one more reason why remote forms of learning, where no one sees you fail, attract some people ?

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Ofsted’s new inspection framework: adult learning for active citizens with British values?

Ofsted is consulting on its future frameworks for inspection, including inspections of further and adult education. The draft framework for further education and skills sets out a number of areas in which provision (and this explicitly includes adult learning) will be judged:

  • Quality of education
  • Behaviour and attitudes
  • Personal development
  • Leadership and management

I was very interested to see the more detailed discussion of these areas, as well as the interconnections between them. Of particular interest for me was the draft elaboration of ‘personal development’, which make it clear that providers are expected to develop wider capacities and qualities among their learners.

It further elaborates that learning should foster active citizenship and promote equality of opportunity and diversity, as well as instilling ‘fundamental British values’ and encouraging responsibility for one’s own fitness and health.

While talk of ‘ British values’ might raise some hackles, and some will bridle at individuals being responsible for their wellbeing, I don’t have a problem with any of this, at least as formulated in the draft framework. It goes without saying that the values listed are certainly not unique to this island, nor indeed to western Europe; and encouraging individuals to look after their bodies sensibly isn’t incompatible with a strong national health service.

I can, though, envisage circumstances in which a future education minister will spot political capital in this, and revise it to his or her partisan advantage. If recent political events have taught us anything, it is that the unthinkable is entirely possible. Meanwhile, I rather welcome this part of Ofsted ‘s draft framework as restoring a neglected dimension of further and adult education.

Commercial adult education: graffiti

As I’ve said before, you can learn quite a bit about commercial adult education just by wandering around. GraffitiArtist, who run a shop in Birmingham’s Custard Factory, claim on their website to offer “the ultimate positive Urban Art experience, and provide graffiti workshops for the general public as well as classes tailored to particular groups. They even offer a basic introduction to graffiti as a party for hens and stags. And its a lot cheaper than learning to make cupcakes in Edinburgh…

You can probably figure out for yourself who the participants are likely to be, and what the benefits are – or aren’t – to the budding graffiti artists and the wider community. Who knows – maybe in thirty years time, a new Banksy will look back fondly on her days at the Custard Factory.

blog graffiti

Adult education in fiction: the rhythms of the year in Jon McGregor’s “Reservoir 13”

I’m constantly impressed by the regularity with which adult education features in German crime fiction. What stands out is that in most cases, adult education doesn’t stand out – it is there in the background as part of every day German life. That’s rare in English language fiction, where adult education is either the main setting or serves as a marker of difference.

In Jon McGregor’s award-winning Reservoir 13, though, adult education features as a marker of passing time. The novel covers 13 years in the life of an English village, mirroring the age of a missing teenager. And every year, as regular as well dressing (Derbyshire perhaps?), harvest festival, or the village panto, the Workers’ Educational Association holds a class in the village.

McGregor doesn’t go into detail about the WEA classes. Their role in the novel is to mark the turning of the months, as one of the threads of continuity that are woven into the changing relationships and lives of the villagers. Who takes part, and why, are not particularly important.

McGregor also has one of his villagers – Susanna Wright – arrange a yoga class in the village hall. This provides something of a contrast with the routine rhythm of the WEA class:

It had taken a while but by now the classes were more popular than some had assumed they might be. She kept saying it was open to everyone, but whenever a man showed up he found himself the only one there, and soon decided not to come back. Most of the women were regulars, and after a few months some of them were disappointed by how few poses they could hold. Susanna tried to tell them yoga wasn’t about goals. There are no badges or certificates here, she said; it’s all about finding your own point of stretch.

This time, the class gives us an insight into some of the characters involved. It also serves to provide an example of change in village life, contrasting with the steady rhythm of the WEA. Susanna is new to the village, arriving in the third year of the narrative, and she is initially greeted with some suspicion. Her first attempt to organise a yoga class attracted three people, and only later does it become popular.

Reservoir 13 is an outstanding novel, and I heartily recommend it. It’s gently experimental in form, but thoroughly engaging, hypnotic even, and the disappearance at its heart remains unresolved. Quite aside from its treatment of adult learning, I really enjoyed it, and despite my general efforts to downsize my book collection, I’m hanging on to this one so I can read it again.

Transforming Adult Learning: the case of South Korea

South Korea is a fascinating country for a lot of different reasons. To snatch a few random reasons why I love the place, public transport is fantastic, the food is superb, and you’re never without a view of the mountains. It has high education standards, though these are infamously linked to high stress levels among students. And the fine walled city of Suwon is busy becoming a model learning city.

Now the country is transforming its support for adult learning. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Education announced its fourth Lifelong Learning Plan. Covering the period 2018-22, the Plan envisages

  • a guarantee of lifelong learning rights (including paid training leave and targeted learning vouchers) for every citizen;
  • a focus on lifelong learning in preparation for job change, exploiting the potential of MOOcs and personalised learning;
  • promoting lifelong learning in other areas of life, with stronger local and regional instgitutions and support for civic completence;
  • improving quality, for example through monitoring performance and making better use of participation statistics.

Th use of vouchers was already proposed in the country’s second lifelong learning plan, which set out proposals for a pilot scheme involving 50,000 basic livelihood support recipients aged over 20. What became of the pilot scheme I do not yet know, but I will return to it here if and when I find out.

Broadly, the Plan seems to me strategically focussed, while broad enough to embrace people’s different life areas. Hopefully we’ll be able to see how it develops over time, as there are bound to be interesting lessons for other nations.

Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer isn’t only replacing Angela Merkel – she’s the president of the German adult education association

Annagret Kramp-Karrenbauer has just been elected the incoming leader of Germany’s ruling Christian Democrats. She’s an experienced politician who has served as prime minister of the Saarland, but she also has another claim to fame: since 2015, AKK (even Germans find her full name a bit of a mouthful) has been serving as president of the Deutscher Volkshochschul-Verband, Germany’s federal adult education association.

Image from the DVV website

The presidency is largely an honorific and symbolic position, but nonetheless an important one. As well as presiding over ceremonial events such as prize giving and awards, AKK has occasionally lent her voice to lobbying and campaigns. For instance, earlier this year used her standing to call on the federal government to offer better support to integration courses for refugees.

Overall, my impression is that she hasn’t been such a high profile personality as her predecessor, Rita Süssmuth (also from the CDU). I’m not sure what happens if and when AKK becomes the next federal Chancellor, though I imagine that at that stage she would have to resign from her role in DVV.

Still, it’s quite a coup to have Merkel’s successor as your president. There is a trade-off between getting too close to a particular serving politician and their party on the one hand, and ensuring that adult education visibly has the standing and recognition that it needs. Hopefully DVV will continue to attract support from senior policy makers, and get this balance right.

Coercion and adult education: the case of Austrian asylum-seekers

Austria has many wonderful qualities and I’ve always enjoyed visiting and learning from it. But I’m not so comfortable with a recent announcement by the country’s Bundeskanzler Sebastian Kurz, who plans to link welfare benefits for asylum-seekers with their competence in German.

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Deutschkurs, from the website of Caritas Wien

To date, monthly social welfare payments for Austrians and asylum-seekers alike are a minimum of 863 Euros (£768/$983) for a single person. In future, asylum-seekers will receive 563 Euros (£501/$641) until they achieve B1 in German, though an exception will be made for those who can speak English to at least level C1 (see here for a full explanation of the language levels).

Previously, attendance at a language course was required only after a positive decision on asylum. I reckon at least a year is needed for someone from a different language tradition to achieve B1 in German, quite possibly longer. And that is assuming that (a) you are literate in your own language and (b) can find a course in the first place. Effectively this measure places asylum-seekers in a waiting room, where they will inevitably struggle to survive until they can leave a course with a nice neat certificate.

Bundeskanzler Kurz has justified the change with reference to the 2015 ‚refugee wave‘. This group was disproportionately composed of young adult men, and Kurz claims that a high proportion have preferred welfare to an apprenticeship. Even if there is something in his claim (if so, much of it is due to the slow rate at which asylum claims are being processed), the decision will also affect children, single parents and older asylum seekers.

The new requirement is also being introduced at a time when support for language courses has been cut. In the last year Austria recognised 22,000 asylum seekers; yet there are only 7,000 places available. And when the Catholic adult education provider in Steiermark offered its own courses, it was roundly attacked by Kurz’s coalition partner, the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs.

This is among a number of migration-related measures introduced by the government, which is a ‘blue-black’ coalition of Kurz’s conservative Österreichische Volkspartei with the right-populist Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs. Remarkably, some of these measures have been directed against migrants from elsewhere in the EU (but not, significantly, against migrants from Switzerland).

Times have clearly changed in the Alpine paradise since I posted a rather positive and optimistic analysis of Austria’s adult education partnership and its achievement. The  coalition’s decision seems to me wrong in principle and likely to backfire in practice. Meanwhle, I have great sympathy for those adult language teachers who will be faced with the practical consequences, and with those migrants who no doubt will be roundly denounced for failing to integrate.